I felt immense relief that every one of my colleagues was willing and able to feed themselves without spreading food all over the walls

11th November 2005 at 00:00
It's 11pm, and I am writing this having spent the past hour upstairs singing the theme tune from Bob the Builder to my one-year-old, who has decided this routine is now a prerequisite for him to fall asleep.

My baby is passed out on the sofa next to me, having just thrown up over his fifth Babygro of the day, and I have a horrible feeling I don't have any clean ones left for tomorrow.

I have just realised that my supper consisted of three slices of white toast, even though I am supposed to be losing my baby weight on the GI diet. Furthermore, I have spent the entire evening arguing with my husband in that pointless way that only the sleep-deprived parents of a new baby and a one-year-old can, especially when the rest of the outside world presumes that a new baby means living in a haven of domestic bliss. The subject of tonight's argument was which of us has it harder. Me, at home, trying to bring up two tiny boys who use screaming or chucking food as their main method of communication; who demand more exercise than a prize pedigree greyhound and have somehow decided that daytime is for sleep and night-time is for play. Or is it my husband? At work all day, shouldering the pressure of providing for us financially, having to take his share of the thankless night shift, and missing out on all those golden parenting moments that I get to experience. I'm hard-pressed to think of one particular golden moment at present, because I'm too busy trying to figure out how to get sweet potato off the curtains, but I'm convinced that they do exist.

I'm not arguing for the sake of it. Having experienced not one, but two maternity leaves, and a brief period of work between them, I can categorically say that being at work makes parenting more manageable. For me, that's a truth that isn't often acknowledged. However much you love your children, and however heart-wrenching it is to kiss them goodbye in the morning, somehow the anguish wears off by the time you've enjoyed a pleasant adult conversation over a cup of tea in the staffroom. I'd love to say that when I returned to work I spent every minute yearning for my elder son, but the truth is that I got a real kick out of being back in my department. I felt immense relief that every one of my colleagues was willing and able to feed themselves without spreading food all over the walls, and could send themselves off to sleep independently. Of course it was hard. There were the inevitable pangs of guilt when it seemed that I came a poor seventh in my child's affections, behind Daddy, the childminder, and each one of the Tweenies. But, like a lot of teachers, I thrive when I have slightly too much to do. I prefer my brain when it's racing.

The thing about time off work is that it's overrated. Once you've defrosted the freezer, tidied up your socks, wheeled the buggy round the park and washed up the 20th bottle of the day, you need a bit of the cut and thrust that only a classroom can provide. I have nothing but respect for parents who stay at home full-time. It's the hardest job in the world and there ought to be some kind of national recognition scheme for them, at the very least. Failing that, I'll take the ability to continue my working life as a reward, and I won't be listening to my other half any more than is absolutely necessary.

Gemma Warren is on maternity leave from her post as head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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